Bomb victim Flora Swire a week before her death (Image: Neville Williams)
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The one thing Jim Swire treasures the most also causes him the most pain. A 50-year-old tape recording, now transferred on to a compact disc, and carefully stored away in a special drawer in his Oxfordshire house.
In it, Jim is singing along with and his seven-year-old daughter Flora as she plays the guitar during an idyllic break on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
“We were in a crofter’s house,” remembers Jim. “I’d been brought up on the island, and Flora was really fond of it too. So one time I took her up there, just her and me.
“She started to play a lovely Simon and Garfunkel song, singing ‘I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war’, and I was singing along with her.
“The tape is so beautiful, Flora’s voice singing while she playing her guitar, the budgies twitting away in the background.
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Bereaved father Dr Jim Swire is on a mission
(Image: Dumfries and Galloway Standard)
"It’s my most treasured possession. But I can hardly bear to listen to it to be honest. I only take it out a few times a year.”
The sound of her voice on such a happy occasion is now Jim’s most poignant reminder of his beloved daughter, who was about to follow him into a career in medicine when her life was suddenly stolen from her on December, 21, 1988, just a day before her 24th birthday.
And from that day on, it was another place in Scotland that would consume Jim’s thoughts for the next three decades – Lockerbie.
Flora had been flying to the US to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, and from where she planned to surprise her parents with the news she had been accepted for a coveted place to complete her medical training at Cambridge University.
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Flora as a tot
The Lockerbie Bombing: A Fathers Search for Justice by Jim Swire and Peter Biddulph was published by Birlinn on May 6
But she never got to do either. Thirty-eight minutes into the long-haul flight, the airliner exploded as it flew 31,000ft over Lockerbie, killing all 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground.
The disaster, caused by a bomb in the cargo hold, is still the deadliest terrorist attack in British history.
His world suddenly torn apart by grief, Jim, a GP, was determined to find answers, and set off on an unforgiving journey that would take him all around the world – including inside the desert tent of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi.
More than 32 years later, and now aged 85, Jim is finally releasing a full account of all he discovered in a new book, The Lockerbie Bombing. His memoirs are also being made into a TV series, released next year.
The remains of Pan Am flight 103
Jim, who with wife Jane has two other children, says that, while he tries to hold on to memories of the good times, it is the moment he identified his daughter’s body in a mass morgue in an ice rink in the stunned town of Lockerbie that most often comes to mind.
Flora’s face has been so distorted by the impact that her father had to identify her by her feet, where she had a dark mole on her left big toe.
He recalls: “The pathologist snipped off a lock of her hair and gave it to me. I remember curling it around my fingers and brushing it across my cheek.
“We had another terribly sad moment when we visited her room in London, and found a letter on her desk telling her she’d been accepted at Cambridge.
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"We were both sure she was saving it to tell us on Christmas Day from America, but she never got the chance to do that.”
Jim dealt with his grief by spending every waking hour searching for information. And it wasn’t long before he began to suspect a cover up.
First, he came across a communication sent from German police to the British government in October 1988 – two months before the attack, warning that Palestinian terrorists were planning to explode a bomb on a plane heading to the US.
The information came after the arrest of a Palestinian bomb maker Marwan Khreesat, who was later released by a German judge.
Jim at Flora's grave
Next, he discovered a classified telex sent by the then British transport secretary James Jack to Heathrow airport, two days before the bombing, with a photo of the type of bomb they believed would be used, hidden inside a radio cassette player to make it difficult to detect on X-ray equipment.
Incredibly, the message told airport staff that if they had suspicions about any object it should be “consigned to the aircraft hold” – exactly where the Lockerbie bomb exploded.
Jim also discovered that, days before the disaster, a notice had been put up in the US embassy in Moscow warning staff of a threat to Pan Am aircraft in the run up to Christmas and advising them to rebook with another airline.
He says: “Flora’s plane was only two-thirds full, remarkable in the week before Christmas. The plane had been filled by people who had been treated as mere cannon fodder, who were taking a risk without knowing it.”
Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi was arrested
(Image: Alamy Stock Photo)
Jim’s investigations led him to believe the Lockerbie bombing was actually ordered by Iran, in retaliation for an incident in July 1988, when American warship The Vincennes destroyed an aircraft in flight containing 290 pilgrims on their way to Mecca.
He believes Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who publicly swore revenge, commissioned a Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, to take down an American plane.
He thinks that, despite knowing the truth, the US and the UK decided to blame Libya, an oil-rich country which was in America’s sights.
Convinced that Libya, and Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in January 2001, wasn’t behind his daughter’s murder, Jim has visited the country, meeting Colonel Gaddafi several times and making friends with al-Megrahi.
(Image: Collect Unknown)
Of his first meeting with Gaddafi, who was overthrown and killed in 2011, he says: “I was terrified. A GP from the middle of England shaking hands with the man who was supposed to be the devil incarnate. We met in his tent in the middle of the desert.
"We were surrounded by his female bodyguards holding AK47s and as I went over to him I could hear the safety catches all clicking off. We got on and even became friends.”
Does he now have all the answers he was so desperate to find? “Yes, but I don’t have the ability to do what I feel is desperately important to be done with those answers.
“I would love to go and talk to the Ayatollahs in Iran, and the men they used, and tell them I forgive them and explain why.
“I would love to make something good come out of all this, but the deception of the West has prevented us from doing that.”
Meanwhile, Jim and his wife Jane, 82, will continue to live with their grief, which is as raw as on that day, over 32 years ago, when they heard Flora had died.
“I often ask myself what will she would be doing now. I’m sure we would be so proud of her.
"And I still can’t help imagining what happened to her on the plane that night. Every time I get on a plane I find myself imagining. Sometimes I even deliberately sit in her seat, 39D.
“I hope she will be proud of what I’ve done too. We think of her all the time, it’s something you never get over. My pain is something that will persist for as long as I’m on the planet.”